Surprise!: Comments on, Well, Surprise

Convincing Writers that Surprise Is the Inevitable Eternal Principle of Literature

Surprise is just about everything, if the writing is to be beautiful.  Both the insight and the phrases should be fresh with each author.

Poor literature does not surprise us.  We begin reading, and in a second we see where the author is going.  The author duly goes there, and we feel testy because we had wanted something original but instead got something conventional.

I am sorry that surprise is necessary to good literature.  It would make more pleasant teaching if we could say to our students, “Anything you say is valuable.”  But the fact is, in the end, one must say something original.  When writers complain of this standard it sometimes helps to remind them that in medicine we want every young doctor to have learned anatomy.  It is not permissible for a doctor to be ignorant.  Every discipline has some stressful, inescapable difficulty to it.

–Carol Bly, from Beyond the Writers’ Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction (New York: Anchor Books, 2001), p. 140.


“On Last Lines,” by Suzanne Buffam


Although laughter, awe, and frisson appear to be very different from one another, I will suggest that they share a deep biological kinship.  We will see that each of these emotions is related to a violation of expectation.  All three are specialized varieties of surprise.

–David Huron, from “Surprise,” the second chapter of Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), pp. 19-39.  p. 26.


“The Poet, Trying to Surprise God,” by Peter Meinke


In 1950, Charles Olson wrote, “A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself, all the way over to the reader.” This energy can be imagined as a charge in the poet’s brain, first transformed into a poem, then re-transformed, in the reader’s brain, back to a charge….Both writer and reader experience poetic energy as a surge of interest and excitement. They feel inspired–filled with the breath of life.

[What follow is a list of “some of the forms poetic energy can take” (87). Webb lists 26 such forms.]

25. AHA! ENERGY: This is what poets are ultimately after: the sudden spark that illuminates the poem and life itself. Though it often comes–if it comes–near the end of the poem, it can arrive at any time. Closely related to metaphor, aha! energy explodes with the discovery–surprising to the poet as to the reader–“This is it! This is what the poem’s about.”

William Trowbridge’s “Coach Said” seems to be a high school coach’s rant to his team about imagined perils of drinking water during practice. As such, the poem is realistic, idiomatically precise, convincingly laughable. Then, in the last four lines, the aha! arrives.

Don’t expect to be some Romeo stud, who thinks
his little cheerleader won’t spit on him when he’s down.
I could tell you some things, but just remember this:
It ain’t gonna be like last year. No goddamn water.

In these lines–especially “It ain’t gonna be like last year”–we understand that the coach is talking about himself: his failures and disappointments, the year-after-year repetition of which he thinks he can stop, for himself and the boys, if he instills enough fear and discipline. As what was funny becomes poignant, even tragic, the [93] poem’s energy-level–already more than sufficient–shoots higher still. (93-4)

–Charles Harper Webb, “The Quick and the Dead: An Energy Crisis in Poetry,” The Writer’s Chronicle 46.4 (Feb 2014), pp. 86-95.

One response

1 08 2013
Surprise! | Structure & Surprise

[…] surprise, I’ve decided to devote a page to interesting comments on surprise.  Check it out here.  The page is still (always) under construction, so please comment with, well, other comments […]

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